What Girls Learn is a coming of age novel made especially serious and reflective because of the grave illness of the mother. Despite this being a first novel, this author seems a wise and seasoned writer in the way that she carefully narrows her field of vision. Two girls, aged eleven and twelve, live out one year in a life that has been filled with moves and new starts. The older daughter, Tilden, finds each move frightening: “I was tired of starting over. Trying to fit our entire lives into one car made it seem more like we were skipping town than actually moving.” This move is especially frightening, because the two girls are leaving the snug security of a relationship with their mother that has been three against the world, and a strange man is being allowed in. And to compound the shattering of the sanctity of their threesome, they are moving from the deep south to Long Island. Elizabeth, the younger of the two girls, embraces both the move and the new man in their lives. Tilden sees it as one of many betrayals on her sister’s part:
Tilden, on the other hand, is suspicious of change, always more apprehensive about what might be lost than about possible gains. Her attitude towards the new man, the intruder in their lives, is simple and straightforward.
I hated that she was so easily convinced, so quickly won over. Even the idea of moving didn’t seem to scare her. Elizabeth used every move as an opportunity to become someone else. She liked to imagine herself exotic, changing her hair ... She could reinvent herself.
And with this simply announcement, the dramatic tension of the novel is set. What follows is a wonderfully detailed account of this young girl’s uneasy move into womanhood and her attempts to understand and deal with the intimations of sexuality that come with it.
He squeezed Elizabeth’s hand tight with both of his and held on for a long time. I gave him one of my dead fish handshakes, letting my fingers lie limp in his palm. I had already decided not to like him.
All in all, this is a heartwarming little novel. The stepfather in this case is a man who exhibits great patience and tolerance. His intense love for the mother transfers easily and immediately to the two girls. Instead of the jealousy and resentment that so many men feel for the children who demand time and love from their mother, this man seems able to understand and to simply wait for the two girls to adjust to him. Indeed, his role in the story recedes almost before it has begun.
The reader is allowed to witness how these two very different girls adjust to a new man, a new life, and the new pressures of dawning sexuality. Tilden, who has received new clothes for her thirteenth birthday, awakens with a sense of expectancy and slips into her new clothes.
Most of this quick little novel is understated, the tone almost light, though the reader discovers (as the two girls do) that their mother is gravely ill with cancer. The mother’s brother, Uncle Rand, appears on the scene, ostensibly because he is (again) down and out and needs a place to stay. In fact, he is there at the request of his sister, and he has come to help with the household and the children. Again, we see how this man’s deep love for his sister transfers easily to the two daughters, although this time there is that confusion of child-love and sexuality that is so devastating for children. Rand is in almost all ways a decent man; still, he cannot quite channel his feelings, cannot quite keep his confused attraction for Tilden from spilling over.
I didn’t look thirteen. Even Elizabeth, who would be twelve two weeks later, had bigger boobs than I did. I tightened the straps on my overalls, hoping that the bib would help hide my flat chest. I styled my hair under with a round brush and flipped my bangs back with a curling iron. I had expected to wake up with a new body. A grown-up, teenage body with curves and hair. I looked exactly the same as I always had: skinny and disappointed.
And with this awesome line, we see again the incredible confusion and havoc that can be unleashed on children when adults allow affection to spill into sexual attraction. In fact, Rand does want mainly to talk to Tilden; he is able to see her, see her needs and fears, see how much like her mother she is. And Tilden needs him; needs his attention, needs to learn more about her mother, about the father she can’t remember. He does love her, is genuinely interested in her, and he almost succeeds in not acting on the sexual attraction that is there. Only once, in a kind of alcohol fog, does he allow his touches to become something other than reassurance. And even the brief sexually tainted touching, itself devastating and inexcusable, is less devastating than the aftermath, and his own way of dealing with the confusion.
It may have been that I was his favorite, but he never said so outright. I figured it was because Elizabeth wasn’t much of a talker; she’d go and go, fast and furious all day, until she collapsed in the evening and fell right to sleep. It was the ease that came of activity, the comfort she felt in her very bones. Uncle Rand always saw to her first, tucking her in with a playful romp, tickling her until she pleaded with him to stop. Then he’d make his way down the hall and turn his attention toward me.
To his credit, Rand remains to help throughout the illness of his sister, and he does the things that are needed in the house. Though it is unfortunate that the only way he can deal with his sexual attraction is to turn away from Tilden, to end the long conversations that had been so important to her, still, better this than compounding his early fumbling sexual advance. As Tilden says later in trying to sort out her own feelings (with no one to talk to, no one to confide in). “This mix of feelings confused me; I had never before felt so many things about one person.”
Mostly, I avoided looking him in the eye, afraid to see in his face an acknowledgement, not so much of what had happened that night but of what had been lost since.
I couldn’t stop remembering the way he’d touched me, his thick fingers, his hot mouth on my skin. Those words and letters mixing with the slightly stale smell of him. But what lingered most was where the touching had taken us. At first, Uncle Rand had seemed needy, his whole body trembling and open. Something in all that urgency made me feel that I mattered, even if it was in the wrong way. Then, when it was over, a wall came down between us. Night after night he continued on, alone in his own room, where I could hear him. I couldn’t help but imagine myself there even though I knew it was wrong. I wanted to be more important to someone than I was.
Though this part of the book is disturbing, it is revealing as well, and much less horrible than it might have been (and has been for so many women). Alreeady I have perhaps revealed more of the plot of this fine, first novel than I should have. Though it may not be a great book, it is a very good one, and while it is sad, it is also wonderfully warm and uplifting in many way. I recommend it to you. I should add that it is short and very easy to read.
And now let me just mention a book of a very different kind—a book that is almost certainly a great one and not easy to read. The book is the long awaited second novel of Ralph Ellison. There is no doubt that his first novel, Invisible Man, is one of the most important American novels of the century. Ellison shows in that book not only his capacity for doing social and political commentary, but also his profound understanding of European philosophy. His second book, juneteenth, was forty years in the writing, and, in fact, was extracted from two thousand pages of manuscript after his death by a local intellectual, John Callahan. I don’t even want to try to review this book. I couldn’t possibly do it justice, nor do I think it is the sort of book that can be overviewed. What I want to do instead is simply tell you that you ought to read it, and that you need to do so when you have the time to focus on it rather completely. The novel and its excellence will simply pass you by if you try to read it in fifteen minute snippets before bed. Even with your best concentration and focus, this book will at times appear disjointed and confusing. But give it concentrated time and attention and I think you will feel, as I do, that this is a book we all need to read, and one that will not be easily forgotten.